Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

An Interview with Two Afghan Mayors

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

originally published in The Bulwark, 4/20/21 https://thebulwark.com/an-interview-with-two-afghan-mayors-about-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/

The mayors of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif explain what the American pullout means for Afghans.

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“We have been your laboratory to fight terrorism. But Afghanistan has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on. This is one of the freest countries in the region in terms of freedom of speech and media. No force can govern Afghanistan without the consent of the people.”

That was Daoud Sultanzoy speaking. He’s been the mayor of Kabul since April 2020, and a friend for about 15 years. We were talking over WhatsApp, discussing the impact of President Biden’s decision to unconditionally remove all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.

The next day I spoke with another friend of long standing who is now mayor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Tawfiq Amini. And in general, both spoke of the time coming for Afghans to stand up for themselves.

What Americans may not fully appreciate is that, for Afghans, our withdrawal isn’t about us.

What follows are interviews with two of the most important politicians in Afghanistan.

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I met Daoud Sultanzoy, 65, in Kabul when he was a member of the Wolesi Jirga—the lower House of Parliament—around 2006, during one of the reporting trips I made to Afghanistan. He’s Kabul-born and raised, from an aristocratic Pashtun family who have historically been landholders in nearby Ghazni province.

While Pashtuns are generally the most conservative ethnic group in Afghanistan (and the group from which the Taliban draw their most fervent support) Daoud is a liberal. He’s a Kabul University-educated engineer and former United Airlines pilot nicknamed “Captain Daoud”—and also a former American citizen who lived for many years in California.

Brilliant and articulate, Sultanzoy was always good for a pithy quote and sparkling conversation at one of the many gatherings of Kabul’s international. After leaving parliament in 2010, he did a stint as a talk radio host. He also ran for president in 2014 and in so doing gave up his American citizenship. (“I could be living in Malibu. But a human being needs to be useful. Afghanistan is where I can be most useful,” he explained.)

The war continues—in 2020 about 1,900 Afghan civilians were killed by anti-government forces. There are 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan currently, plus about 7,000 NATO forces. Afghanistan is currently protected by the 350,000 members of the Afghan Army and Air Force and 125,000 local police.

Sultanzoy seems unworried about the dangers of his job and only when I asked directly about assassination attempts did he mention that a few months ago his security detail discovered a bomb in his car.

Ann Marlowe: Daoud, I don’t think many Americans know how you become a mayor in Afghanistan? And what’s the best estimate of the population of Kabul?

Daoud Sultanzoy: Afghan mayors are supposed to be elected, but along with the District Council system, mayoral elections have not yet been set up. The mayor of Kabul is appointed by the president and sits in the cabinet. The mayors of all the other cities are appointed by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG).

I have no fixed term limit. It depends on the president. I have received a lot of support from the president and the two vice presidents.

The best estimate is that Kabul has a daytime population of about 6,000,000 people, of whom 1,000,000 commute into the center every day from the outskirts or other provinces. We have 8,500 municipal employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about the economic effect of the whittling away of the international community in Kabul? Is the aid money still there? Is there a sustainable economy?

Sultanzoy: Actually we are the only municipality that generates its own budget through fees. We do not depend on international aid, although we do receive some through the World Bank which comes with strings attached. It is not a significant part of our budget which is about 13 billion afghanis or $168 million at 77 afghanis per dollar.

There is a lot of economic activity here that has nothing to do with the foreign community and a lot of problems that are local problems. For example there are thousands of unregistered unlicensed pushcarts selling goods. This has been a big problem because it is not usually a question of one person owning one cart, it is a mafia of one person owning 800 or 1,000 carts which block the streets and pay no fees or taxes. [The cart operators pay fees to the mafia rather than the city.] We have registered 25,000 people who claimed to be owners of carts.

Marlowe: Is there still a huge problem in Kabul with informal housing settlements without water or electricity? As in other places in the developing world, people who live in these settlements do not have titles to their property which they have often paid significant amounts for . . .

Sultanzoy: Yes, this is a big problem, although we have made some progress since I took office. About 70 percent of the new construction in the last 20 years is unplanned and unregistered and because it is also untaxed we’re losing a lot of revenue. Depending on the size of the house, an average house would pay about 1,000 afghanis ($13) per year in taxes.

UN-Habitat undertook certain parts of this registration and there they have not produced good results. The government is not very happy about it. I’m not privy to what they have done because they took these projects before I became the mayor. One part was done in Kabul and it’s still not complete. What we are doing now is through the Afghan government. Land registration is done by the Ministry of Urban Development, unfortunately. I would have preferred it to have been done by the municipality.

I went head-to-head with warlords who have grabbed millions of square meters of land, including parkland and green space, and I received a lot of support from First Vice President Amanarullah Salah.

Marlowe: You became mayor right in the middle of the pandemic. What kind of impact has COVID-19 had in Kabul? From what I have heard and read, the situation has not been as catastrophic in Afghanistan as in the United States or other developed countries. There certainly isn’t testing going on, but I read that there are fewer than 3,000 deaths so far.

Do people take the pandemic seriously?

Sultanzoy: We prepared for many sick, but they did not materialize. We have a young population. For 40 days, during a lockdown, our municipality distributed 120,000,000 pieces of bread to 3.1 million households at a cost of $68.8 million.

Due to the economic situation, it is not possible for most people to wear masks. But they are aware of social distancing. As far as vaccinations, we have begun with the security forces here. We are waiting for supplies from ÇOVAX [which provides free vaccines to poor countries].

Marlowe: What kind of security situation did you inherit from your predecessor? My impression from talking to Afghan friends is that Kabul is more dangerous than it was the last time I was there in 2011. Is there anything you can do about this as mayor or is it outside your sphere?

Sultanzoy: I do not have control over the police in Kabul, even the traffic police. They report to the minister of the interior.

Marlowe: How well are the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) doing in your opinion? How well has the United States done at training the ANSF after spending $88 billion?

Sultanzoy: No meaningful territory has been lost by ANSF, although government forces have withdrawn from some places. There is a very small footprint of those who create insecurity.

Marlowe: What do you think Afghans are hoping for from Americans in the future?

Sultanzoy: We are hoping for more clarity about the civilian role of the United States after the military withdrawal. The United States has not mentioned what they will do beyond saying that financial support will continue, but this is very vague. When the international community is not clear about its intentions, insecurity grows.

This nation has to become a nation of the 21st century. We need education and healthcare—these are not western things, they are human things. America was not made from within alone. It was also made from Europe. Afghanistan should be supported as America was supported.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems?

Sultanzoy: This is a very complicated country both in terrain and people and the ways we interpret things are very different. We Afghans are not direct people. When Americans speak to us very directly we try to interpret what they’re “really” saying.

Marlowe: What are some of the other initiatives you’ve started since you took office?

Sultanzoy: Just three weeks ago we started a public bus system with five buses. We hope that by the middle of the year we will have more than 100 buses in service.

We are also trying to increase the number of women among municipal employees. There have been very few and we’re focusing on getting to 30 percent, but we have only added dozens so far out of our 8,500 employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about some depressing numbers the World Bank has published on education:

Education spending has declined over recent years, especially on basic education. Education’s share of the budget has declined from 17 percent in 1390 to just 12 percent in 1397. Real per capita spending on education has decreased by around 13 percent over the past five years.

Sultanzoy: Part of the reason for this is systematic corruption in the past in the Ministry of Education (including fictitious teachers). Also in some areas the schools are not functioning due to insecurity.

Marlowe: In the ongoing negotiations, do you trust the Taliban?

Sultanzoy: Trust should be built and trust is measured by deeds, so in generic terms I should say any two parties that want to negotiate they have to embark on a path that will build trust and that path in our case is to prevent war. In the 21st century people shouldn’t be shedding blood in order to resolve disputes.

If we want to have a future together we have to put our arms on the side and sit down like our forefathers have done and talk about our differences and iron it out. There’s nothing that cannot be ironed out.

Marlowe: So do you think that there is anything valuable that the Taliban can contribute to Afghanistan?

Sultanzoy: Of course, of course! No one party is the only perfect party to monopolize governing this country. Every group of people who live in this country have something to contribute and we have to listen to all of them and we have to bring them all to the same table and and give them the proportionate role. . . . Their precondition was for American troops to withdraw. I think they should also cut their ties with foreign interference, then there’s nothing that we cannot iron out.

Marlowe: In conclusion, where do you expect that Afghanistan will be in another 20 years? A lot of Americans are pessimistic but you seem more optimistic.

Sultanzoy: If we embark on a durable peace that is just and that is equitable and that will uphold certain principles for a country that needs to be embarking on a path of development—then Afghanistan will develop very quickly because the ingredients are there. The manpower, the capital, the appetite for business and for entrepreneurship in the country, natural resources, agriculture, water resources and the availability of tools not only nationally, but internationally, that can speed up development.

I first visited Mazar-i-Sharif in fall of 2002 when there were only a few blocks of shops with glass windows, no buildings taller than the venerated Blue Mosque, and no commercial Internet providers. I stayed at the home of two very kind people, now deceased: Naser Amini and his wife Maryam. They shared a “roushan fekr” attitude, which in Farsi means “enlightened thinking.” The family were ethnic Uzbek landowners originally from Maimana in Faryab province, but more recently they had fled the Taliban takeover of Kabul. I spent a lot of time with their five children who were then teens or young adults.

The oldest son, Ahmad Tawfiq Amini, now 43 and known as Tawfiq, became the mayor of Mazar-i Sharif on March 2. Trained as a civil engineer, Amini is a burly, confident man with a sly sense of humor who looks like the contractor he was for many years. His wife is a teacher and he has supported his sisters’ efforts to graduate from university, and has sent his daughters to private school and university.

Mazar has always been a safer place than Kabul—the Taliban has little local backing in this multiethnic city, where Dari-speaking Tajiks are the single largest group and there are significant numbers of Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras. The last 20 years have brought many positive changes. The long-term provincial strongman, Atta Muhammed, has presided over a corrupt but efficient and business- friendly administration. Mazar is just 34 miles from the Uzbek border crossing of Termez, which is a source of abundant customs revenue. Now the population is around 1,000,000 and the city has tall buildings and an international airport—and most middle-class residents have smart phones with Internet access.

But the area also has more violence. For some years it has no longer been possible for government officials or foreigners to drive safely between Kabul and Mazar, something I probably did a dozen times in the past. While the Afghan government controls both cities, the Taliban has a presence in between.

Amini has also had a brush with danger since becoming mayor. On April 10, his oldest daughter called, telling me that the handcart mafia had burned his car.

Amini and I spoke on WhatsApp after I sent him questions—he reads and understands English better than he speaks it. As a result, this transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ann Marlowe: So how did you become mayor of Mazar?

Tawfiq Amini: I am not elected by people. It’s a different system: This job was announced on the government website for everyone to apply. I applied and I was selected for the interview; when I passed the interview I was asked to give a presentation. As an engineer, I had enough experience working in the city that I was able to explain about my plans for the future of this city. Luckily within 24 hours I confirmed that I got the job. My term is two years.

Marlowe: And your responsibilities as mayor?

Amini: As a mayor, my responsibility is to keep the infrastructure safe and clean, I also try to create job opportunities for people who do not have jobs. We have about 100 jobs reserved for poor people and these jobs pay 5,000 afghanis per month (about $64). My goals are to help people and hear their stories and their needs. There are poor people whose land was taken away from them illegally. I am helping them to get their land back and also working on reducing the corruption in the city.

Marlowe: Does the United States provide any financial support to the city?

Amini: Since I started working as mayor I have not received any help from the United States government.

Marlowe: How about NGOs?

Amini: UN-Habitat has been working here for about four years registering houses [establishing a land titling system that enables the collection of taxes]. Maybe 60 percent or 65 percent of houses are now registered. An average house maybe pays 1,500 afghanis ($19) a year in taxes.

Marlowe: What is the amount of the annual budget of Mazar city?

Amini: It is about 100,000,000 afghanis ($1.28 million) per year depending on how many taxes we get.The money comes from taxes (including customs duties).

Marlowe: Do you think it is better that the Americans go or that the Americans stay?

Amini: It is better to stay. The economic situation might be bad after they leave. But we Afghans have to stand up and build our country. I know America has been great support during the last 20 years, but now it’s time for all Afghan ethnic groups to come together to be united and fight for their rights and bring peace to their country, and take responsibility. I believe that Afghans are the only ones who can solve their problems.

I hope that Afghanistan does not fall back to the hands of the Taliban. People are already so tired of war, they are so thirsty for peace and stability.

Marlowe: Do you think there is a high chance of the Taliban taking over Mazar?

Amini: No, only about a 10 percent chance. The people in the city are not liking the Taliban. The Taliban are in the villages.

Marlowe: Are there any American or other foreign troops stationed near Mazar?

Amini: Yes, at Marmul camp in Mazar, near the airport. They do not come into the city.

Marlowe: What changes will happen in Mazar when the Americans leave?

Amini: Well the American troops have already decreased. I don’t think there will be a major change as we are aware that the Afghan National Army is getting ready to take responsibility for the security of the city and country. We are hoping and expecting that government will come up with a plan to keep the people safe.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems? Why could they not defeat the Taliban?

Amini: Great questions. Ann, what Americans did not understand about Afghans is the history and culture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a complex history and also is a country where religion is a powerful social force. Americans did not understand the culture of Afghans, the values that they hold. If the country is profoundly rooted in tradition and religion, it’s hard to introduce the idea of democracy.

Also Afghanistan is a multiethnic and predominantly tribal country. Every tribe has its leader, and people listen to their leader more than the government. There are always conflicts between different tribes, which can be one reason why the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems because it is hard to understand the cultural concept of each ethnic group.

Also, lack of education: The literacy rate in Afghanistan is the lowest in the world. [Afghanistan, with an adult literacy rate of 43 percent, is one of the handful of least literate countries in the world according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is now about double what it was in 1980.] That puts the country in a different danger. Afghanistan is one country that depends on foreign aid, and America has played a significant role in helping Afghanistan.

About why could they not defeat the Taliban: Geographically Afghanistan is located in central Asia where some neighbors of Afghanistan are interfering with Afghan policy, such as Pakistan, Iran, and their relationship with them.

Marlowe: What does Afghanistan need for the future?

Amini: I have seven children—five daughters and two sons, and I am very proud of them. My oldest daughter is studying medicine. My son is studying engineering.

This is what my country needs: more young people to study and help their country.

Some Deep Thoughts on “War Dogs”

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

(originally published on Aug 31 2016 on Tabletmag.com: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/211964/some-deep-thoughts-on-war-dogs)

“People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” the rock musician Kim Gordon has said. More accurate to unpack the thought into two related ideas: first, that people pay money to see others engaged in the struggle to believe in themselves. (Whether it’s a rock star or an athlete, the possibility of failure is part of what draws us in.) And second, that people pay money to see others enjoying themselves—probably because the secret of how to do that becomes elusive after childhood.

This is part of Donald Trump’s popularity. He loves what he does, which is being in the public gaze. Even if that shouldn’t be the president’s main job description, and even from the perspective of a Trump hater, compared with Trump’s enjoyment of the spotlight, all of his competitors for the Republican nomination paled. People simply enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.

War Dogs shows work as fun, and as such, it’s much more subversive than director Todd Phillips’ earlier comedies, like Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover trilogy (none of which I’ve seen). War Dogs is about two 20-something losers who dream big, and what’s riveting is their struggle to believe in themselves, and their pleasure in what they do. (The book on which the movie was based actually features three, not two, main characters.) It’s a feel-good movie for defiant people and outsiders. Yes, it’s about selling weapons, but more about the selling than the weapons, and more still about work in general—a topic perennially underserved by novelists, but given more of its due by TV and movies, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently noted. And as many people know, even the most mundane, unglamorous businesses can be absolutely gripping and full of drama, when they’re yours and there’s a chance to hit big. Think 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross (based on the David Mamet play) or David Russell’s fine 2015 movie Joy, about a woman whose mission in life was to invent a better mop. Or, for that matter, The Social Network.

Silicon Valley is all about what you do for fun becoming what makes you a fortune; that’s why it’s subversive—mainstream American culture still separates fun and fortune, weekday and weekend. I happened to see War Dogs for the first time on a Friday at 8 p.m., and on the way to the theater I was thinking how much I hate the phrase “have a good weekend!”—a phrase I associate with people doing work they don’t like, living for the Saturday-Sunday respite, and thinking everyone else lives like that too. Whereas I believe the goal in life is to find something you want to do seven days a week, whether it’s trade stocks or write poetry or raise kids or grow organic vegetables. Or be an arms dealer. Something that pleases and drives you so much that you don’t need or want time off.

And Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) the literally oversize protagonist of War Dogs, spends seven days a week selling weapons because it’s what he was born to do; his borderline sociopathy makes him a great salesman and he loves the details of the arms trade, the opportunity for hustling, and the guns themselves. He’s also scabrously un-PC in a way that also calls Trump to mind; he tells a translator to “say that in gibberish” and shoves past the crowd at Amman’s airport saying he’s American, he has to go first. His handsome but bland Jewish grade-school buddy, David Packouz (Miles Teller), with fewer obvious business skills and no love of guns, comes along for the ride. It beats his other job, giving massages (we see him with an older male client who “accidentally” drops his ass-covering towel to the floor).

As we’ll learn, Efraim is a shadow of a human being, without the ability to connect to others through friendship, love, or family. Yet he’s also charismatic because he is someone who loves how he spends his time. We’re supposed to identify with David, an attractive nebbish in a pink polo shirt carting a massage table around, but we’re mesmerized by Efraim, loud, crude and one-dimensional though he is.

Efraim and David spend almost all their waking hours in an office that’s basically a desk and a Scarface poster, staring at a U.S. government defense-procurement website and trying to figure out a way for their tiny firm, AEY Inc., to fulfill the contracts too small for established businesses to want to bid on. The movie makes it look like enormous fun. Because their business day begins again at midnight Miami time, morning in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the boundaries of work and play are diffuse. Because of this, and because these guys are in their 20s, there’s a lot of weed smoked and, eventually, coke snorted. It’s not so different from The Social Network, except that Mark Zuckerberg was creating something, and Efraim is just a middleman between arms buyers and sellers.

But the biggest difference between these guys and Silicon Valley is in style. The dudes are Jewish, just like Zuckerberg, but they’re from an insular, probably lower-middle-class Jewish background, while Zuckerberg went to Exeter and spent a couple of years at Harvard. (It seems Diveroli and Packouz are Sephardic.) They could just as well be Italian- or Irish-Americans—anyone who grew up in a tight-knit ethnic enclave, who got seed capital from a guy with a chain of dry cleaners (in real life, apparently, the financier was a Mormon in Utah) not a venture capitalist. Efraim has more in common with Melanie Griffith’s working-class striver from 1988’s Working Girl than with the privileged wonks of The Social Network; he was kicked out of high school after ninth grade and was just 18 when he started AEY. (The movie has them the same age, early 20, but David is really four years older.)

Of course, Efraim isn’t meant to be a role model. He’s open about his use of prostitutes; in fact, he’s unable to imagine any other kind of relationship with a woman. When he sees a girl he likes in a nightclub, he offers her $1,000 to blow him in his car, saying, “Why don’t we pretend we’ve had the three dates.” (Her boyfriend saunters by and decks him.) There are signs early on that Efraim’s also unable to be the “best friend” to David that he claims.

The two men get a huge, historic ammunition contract—but they make a sloppy mistake, and their comeuppance is only a matter of time. And as the business expands, Efraim spends more time doing cocaine and becomes suspicious and mean. We sense his unraveling in a scene of a trainee orientation. At the end of his spiel, Efraim asks if the trainees have any questions. “What does AEY stand for?” one guy asks. Efraim says, “It doesn’t stand for anything. Like IBM. Does IBM stand for anything?” The trainee says, “Well, actually it does. It stands for International Business Machines.” And Efraim shouts at him, “Get the fuck out of my office!” Then, “Anyone else have a question?” Silence. That bullying moment is, in fact, pure Trump. And you know then that Efraim is killing his newborn company.

Efraim and David get to the point where their work has an effect on the fate of nations. But Efraim is brought down because he becomes a pig. You could say it’s one of the things people do when they become addicted to coke, but you could also say people who want to punish themselves in certain ways use coke to do that. There’s a sadness deep in Efraim, beneath the hustle and the manic joy. The second time I saw the movie, I realized that part of Jonah Hill’s terrific performance is giving Efraim a peculiar laugh that sounds like sobbing. His bravado is a defense against depression.

How about David? There’s the obligatory scene where Packouz comes to his estranged baby mama, Iz, repentant, saying he’ll go back to doing massages, and she says she was always OK with that. Iz (a thankless role played by Ana de Armas) is from a modest Hispanic immigrant background. At the end of the movie, David’s back to schlepping that massage table around. Is Todd Phillips telling us that this is all life has to offer him?

A surprise ending suggests “no.” Because, of course, Todd Phillips’ heart isn’t with the normal, mediocre life. How could it be? What kind of wildly successful comedy director lives that way? War Dogs doesn’t believe that it’s equally good to decide the fate of nations or to give massages, and why shouldn’t we agree? Why do the same old shit for 40 years and then go nameless to your grave?

War Dogs doesn’t offer any easy answers; the potential happy ending for David comes with moral ambiguity. Everything costs something. But the movie forces us to ask: Why not try for the big time, whatever that means to you?

***

Do We Really Want to be Members of a Tribe?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

(http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/207079/members-of-a-tribe)

Sebastian Junger’s fascinatingly wrong-headed ‘Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging’

By Ann Marlowe
July 7, 2016 • 12:00 AM

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

This statement early in Sebastian Junger’s new paean to tribal togetherness is, on the face of it, rubbish. Western society’s lack of appeal must be news to the millions of people who try, often at risk of their lives, to enter the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the European Union each year as migrants or immigrants, apparently having decided that all that tribal connectivity in Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria (to name the countries that were the top sources of migrants to the E.U. in 2015) was something they could live without. Such rashness alerts us that Tribe is one of those eccentric screeds where everything looks like a nail because the author has a hammer. (But then, 2016 is a year in which this seems to be a feature of political thinking.)

Junger argues that the loss of the tribal environment in which human beings evolved helps to explain the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, and insurance fraud. He even argues against the American and Northern European practice of making children sleep by themselves in their own rooms—after all, our primitive ancestors didn’t do that, so it must cause problems. And yet Junger never defines what he means by “tribe.” The closest he comes is near the end of the book: “Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.” But Americans already have one of the world’s highest levels of community engagement in terms of volunteerism, charitable giving, and attendance at religious worship.

Junger wants something more intense than normal life. Natural disasters, he argues, “Turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” He’s in love with the immediately post-Sept. 11 upsurge of group cohesion, and some of this was a good thing. He points out that there were no mass shootings for a year after Sept. 11 and that “rates of violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbance dropped immediately. … New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent.” But there was also a circling of the wagons, a suspicion of the foreign and the Muslim, a lot of flag waving by people careful to stay far from danger.

Is American society circa 2001-2 really something we want to revisit? Did we fight smart wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result? Was abridging our freedoms at home really the best way to enlarge the cause of freedom in the world? Is the rhetoric of “homeland” and “belonging” to a larger entity and “solidarity” helpful going forward?

Junger’s book is sorely lacking in analysis, counter-examples, subtlety, and organization. His prose has the rounded homogeneity of best-selling nonfiction. Yet the itch Junger is scratching is widespread in advanced societies, and the regressiveness of his argument is very of the moment, and he knows something about what he speaks: A seasoned war correspondent, he is the author of War, about an extended embed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan, and the companion film Restrepo. And as a national level distance runner at Wesleyan, he also spent a summer training with Navajo runners.

Yet Junger’s tribalism is vague. He mainly refers to Native American tribes, though he does mention a few African tribes. As anthropologists have been at pains to establish, tribes come in all sorts of flavors, and some are very nasty. It matters, because the crux of Junger’s argument is that human beings used to live happily in a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years in small tribes, and we no longer do, and our genetics change much more slowly than our living conditions, so we are profoundly maladjusted to the way we live now. This in turn leads to greedy bankers who disrespect the tribe by taking more than their share and PTSD for returning warriors, because war used to involve the whole tribe, not just a small segment of society. It’s hard not to see Junger’s model for how human beings used to live as yet another primitivism fantasy, an imaginary paradise loosely gleaned from American Indian life. It’s nostalgie de la boue—a term coined in 1855, just as the lower layers of European society were finally starting to escape the mud.

Moreover, the term tribal today is often used to describe social organization in some spectacularly unsuccessful places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and (with less validity) Libya. In some places in these countries belonging to a tribe is more or less important. But these societies, unlike American Indian life as Junger characterizes it, suffer from severe gender inequality, endemic corruption, conflict, and often from extremes of wealth and poverty.

But let’s give Junger the benefit of the doubt, say that human beings evolved under something like the conditions of the nicer American Indian tribes, and see what he has to say.

***

“Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” Junger notes. But so many Americans who do not claim Indian identity have Indian great-great-great grandmothers or -fathers that plenty of Indians must have entered white society. From my anecdotal knowledge, most of the captives lived on the frontiers and were not part of the ruling elites. They had pushed out to the places where the forest met the fields for cheaper land or more privacy; they were not abducted from Boston or Richmond. My hunch is that the captives who chose to stay were predominantly lower income, lower status, less educated: They were making a rational choice in the context of their position in white society. As Junger points out, “Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian,” and a lower-status white person might do better relatively there.

As to the appeal of Native American life to non-Native Americans, it may well have been relaxed and companionable and egalitarian, but it did not offer much scope to the intellectual or cultural interests of cultivated Europeans (or for that matter Chinese or Japanese) at the time. How appealing would it be to spend the rest of your life in a society of 100 to 1,000 ethnically homogeneous people, without access to writing, science, philosophy, more than one type of cooking, chess, more than one type of music, more than one type of dance, more than one type of fashion, painting, or a variety of sports? Even in the 18th century, it meant no horse-drawn carriages, no roads, no Homer, no Shakespeare, no flower gardens, no piano, no silk, no architecture, no metal tools, no fine china, no furniture, no number theory.
‘Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.’

Junger is also curiously silent about the moral and spiritual life of the Indian tribes. He might have noted that at the time of the first settlers, Protestantism was also becoming the dominant religion of northern and Western Europe. Protestantism demanded individual moral judgment and constant self-scrutiny (rather like Judaism). The notion of a career as providing meaning in life was just beginning to grow and with it the idea that one was responsible for one’s success or failure in worldly terms, and that it all had something to do with goodness. All of this is hard stuff; that’s why many people in the West, and even more in the Rest, still don’t like it.

It’s easier to live in a shame culture, not a guilt culture, and that’s what Native America was. The Indians may have lived blamelessly, even virtuously, but without forming independent moral judgments, figuring out one’s identity as an autonomous individual, even opposing the group if one thought they were wrong. When people are caught up in a larger-than-life drama, good or bad, whether a natural disaster or an event like Sept. 11, they find themselves back in a shame culture, where self-interrogation is less important than meeting group expectations. And for some people, this has good effects.

Junger’s two favorite idylls, military life and Native American life, meet along an existential dimension: In both of them, you don’t need to engage in a daily struggle to achieve your purpose in life. Most of us in advanced, urbanized cultures have to confront disturbing existential questions every day. What have I accomplished today? What’s my plan? Am I living rightly? Is everything I’m doing today furthering that plan?

This sort of interrogation is a part of Jewish culture even among non-religious Jews and surely explains the celebrated neuroticism and melancholy of Jews. Which brings me to another issue: I can’t see the word “tribe” without thinking of the phrase, “member of the Tribe.” Maybe it’s the same for Junger, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side. I’ve never liked this phrase, which implies that Jews are born, not made, and which mistakes what is great about Judaism. Our ancestors were not very like the American Indians Junger extols: They invented monotheism and wrote the Bible and started abstract thinking and one of the great schools of legal reasoning thousands of years ago. All of this proved to be essential to modern life. All of it was accessible to people who were not born Jews.

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In tribal life, as in the American military, many of the existential questions are answered for you once you make the big choice to sign up. That’s why there are people who flounder in civilian life but succeed brilliantly in the military. That’s also why some 18th-century captives presumably made great Indians, but would have been lost in Providence or Philadelphia.

So, yes; living in the non-tribal world is harder and often sadder. Junger says: “The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.” Of course! If you’re a Chinese immigrant waiter working 18 hours a day and sharing a two-bedroom with 15 other men, you don’t have the luxury of depression. But a Chinese-American investment banker has time to agonize over whether he is really actualizing himself, really married to the right person, really living in the right city. “According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries.” Well, yes. If I’m sure of my food for the day, I start thinking about existential issues, and often this leads to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.

In Tribe, Junger does not mention any of this; war and tribal life are all about camaraderie, never about how they solve the existential questions. Perhaps because of the simplistic view he takes of war, Junger also errs in his argument in Tribe that PTSD is a disease of re-entry into a fragmented society. This is unfair in a couple of ways to the military and rather unfortunate given recent medical research on the physical basis of at least some PTSD. Junger, whose website features a photograph of the author in body armor on an embed, is a great admirer of the American military, but just as he ignores the aspects of military life that are easier than civilian life, he also ignores the burdens of military discipline and of command.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Junger’s fallen into a common trap among military reporters: thinking you’re having the full experience when you’re just an observer. Sentences like, “At one point I and the men I was with made our way to a front-line position” and “We lost one of our packhorses in the barrage” are a clue that Junger misunderstands his role. Reporters have few of the moral burdens of the combatants. No journalist fires at the car that doesn’t slow down for the checkpoint and then finds out that it contains the dead bodies of a not very bright father and his perfectly innocent Iraqi family of eight. No journalist sends a SEAL team on a mission knowing some of them will not come back—or sends four young low-ranking enlisted on a routine re-supply convoy that ends in their crippling by IED explosion. All this must be processed on re-entry.

Then there is the impact of IEDs. It’s not uncommon for American soldiers with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to have experienced several IED blasts. This is very different from a World War II soldier’s experience. Junger notes that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” He’s right to notice that there is a mismatch—and some fraud and freeloading—here. But that 10 percent figure is as sketchy as it is hard to verify, and it’s irrelevant in the new wars, where combat is not what’s most likely to kill you. Supply specialists, drivers, cultural experts, or engineers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong convoy can die or receive disabling injuries in an instant.

Junger’s view of PTSD as a mainly or wholly psychological ailment is also turning out to be incorrect. Medical studies are emerging now which prove what seems common sense: The human brain is injured by being multiply concussed. Just in the last months, it’s emerged that there are distinctive changes in the brain from concussions that can affect reasoning, mood, and behavior. Here is the key medical article and here is the New York Times Magazine piece about it.

More than 340,000 veterans have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (admittedly most not from IEDs), which can take months or years to manifest. Part of the reason for the high numbers of vets applying for disability is that people are surviving what would have been lethal wounds in earlier wars. Junger views it as a paradox that disability claims rise as mortality falls, but it makes perfect sense: We have a lot more injured vets coming back who would have died in WWII from the same injuries. So, if PTSD is often a response to surviving IED explosions that jar the brain, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of integration into society the returning vet has.

But again like that man who happens to have a hammer, Junger is intent on seeing all of life through the lens of the military and tribalism. Something Junger says about the current debased political discourse is applicable here: “Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” Sympathetic though I am with Junger’s message, America should not be looked at as a combat outpost—either by foreigners, or worse, by Americans.

We have never been Sparta; the founders were clear that we were not to be a garrison state with a standing army but a nation devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” in whatever way individuals wished. And it’s precisely because figuring out one’s desires is tough that life in the contemporary world is tough. Jews learned that, perhaps, before most other people. But regression to the values of tribalism is no answer.